Nevada State Highway 305 can hold its own against any stretch of road in the lower 48 when it comes to desolated stretches of asphalt. Cell phone service is spotty at best and the FM scan can run on for more than an hour without ever finding a station. The scenery is sparse and redundant but the wide-open spaces can be breathtaking, especially for people not accustomed to seeing a ribbon of highway stretching to the horizon in either direction. As I made my way up to Battle Mountain from Las Vegas, the final stretch of my journey would take me along NV 305, where 88 cars would gather in less than 36 hours to participate in an open road race called the Pony Express 130.
For the uninitiated, open road races are contests of time and speed that take place on vast expanses of road that total at least 90 miles. Drag racers can think of it as one big bracket race, where drivers select a class in which to compete based on a speed they hope to average over the duration of the event. Therefore, if a driver competed in the 130-mph class, he would attempt to complete the course in exactly one hour. This particular event had classes ranging from 85 mph all the way up to 170 mph, with tech speeds exceeding the average target speed, allowing drivers to make up for time lost in slower sections.
By the time I hit NV 305, the sun had dropped down behind the Clan Alpine Mountains and darkness covered the road. As I entered the stretch between Austin and Battle Mountain known as "the Canyons," I started seeing dirt clods littering the highway. I assumed they had been left by farm equipment, but the closer I came to Battle Mountain, the more I saw. I started to wonder if it was even dirt at all, but just as thoughts of 1,000 head of cattle grazing on the road crept into my head, the painted lines disappeared beneath the debris that now seemed to be moving in a slow wave.
Since I hadn't encountered any other traffic in the last hour, I determined it was safe enough to slow down on the highway and take a closer look. As my truck slowly came to a halt, I heard an unusual crunching noise coming from my tires and I suddenly realized the "dirt" I had been looking at for the last ten minutes was actually a huge swarm of Mormon crickets that had now smothered the road. As I slowly accelerated in stunned disbelief, my rear tires began spinning on the swarm of crickets as if I were driving on ice. "Surely," I thought, "they weren't actually going to race on this road at triple-digit speeds!"
Upon arriving in Battle Mountain, I headed straight for the host hotel, where I was greeted by a group of racers who were blending drinks and swapping stories in the front lobby. I asked them about the cricket infestation on what was to soon be their race course and while they acknowledged a few stray insects, they didn't think it was much cause for concern.
As it turns out, the cricket presence had increased dramatically since they last saw the course. Race Director, Ray Hampton reviewed the situation the next day and reluctantly announced a 60-mph speed limit on a five-mile stretch of the road. The decision was not popular, but participants understood the concern organizers had for their safety. Navigators were sent scrambling for their calculators as questions were raised regarding where exactly the speed limit would begin and end and how that could possibly be enforced. Fortunately, the situation improved during the day on Saturday and by Sunday morning, race officials determined the entire course was safe enough to revert back to the original format.
With all the attention being paid to crickets, little mention was made of the weather forecast of scattered showers for Sunday's event. Perhaps this was due to the fact that these races take place rain or shine. When the sun came up Sunday morning, the weather looked pretty decent and competitors made their way out to the starting line at the "Payphone Ranch" (a rest stop about 50 miles south of Battle Mountain).
Dozens of course workers and ham radio operators were dispatched to strategic positions along 305 and Ray Hampton gathered the drivers for one final meeting before the first group of cars were sent off. Besides the elimination of the cricket zone, the big news of the morning was that the flight for life helicopter they typically like to have on standby was called away that morning. Ray reminded the group of event organizer MKM's policy of updating racers on the status of the chopper before their scheduled start time. If the helicopter was still not available, drivers always had the option of withdrawing.
Once the meeting concluded, drivers headed for their respective vehicles. The light-hearted atmosphere present most of the weekend was replaced with nervous anticipation. Friends embraced each other and exchanged well wishes that often had an ominous tone to them. It was clear that for many, their mortality was brought to the forefront of their consciousness. After all, they weren't going to be running their cars at triple-digit speeds on an enclosed road course with sand traps in the turns and tire barriers to cushion the more serious off-track excursions. They were strapping in for a high-speed run down a state highway that had more boulders than guardrails waiting to catch them if they happened to blow a tire, swerve to avoid a stray animal or spin out on a slick patch of cricket guts.
The race started with the slower classes being sent out in varying intervals, but action was quickly brought to a halt when word came back that the 2004 Dodge Viper of Michael Szulborski and Roland Roth had caught fire on the road after blowing its engine. Taking into consideration the limited timeframe the event organizers had been granted from the Nevada DOT, Ray Hampton decided the most equitable course of action would be to abort the runs of everyone who left after the Viper and bring them back to the starting line for another chance at a clean pass down to the turnaround point at Austin.
As cars slowly returned to the starting line, several drivers in the reassembled field expressed concern over the extra distance they were now forced to cover. Sustained speeds exceeding 100 mph typically results in fuel mileage somewhere in the low-single digit range and many cars simply didn't have the capacity to travel the additional distance required by the restart. The nearest station was 50 miles north in Battle Mountain but enough fuel was secured on site from local firemen and fellow racers to get everyone down to Austin, where a fuel truck would be waiting to supply them with enough high-octane juice to run the 130 miles back up to Battle Mountain.
After a lengthy delay, the remaining cars in the slower classes were sent out and competitors in the 170-mph class began lining up on the grid. Entries in this class are generally purpose-built racecars and include several ex-NASCAR machines. To ensure the safest racing surface possible, a safety truck was dispatched to sweep the course before the 170-mph class was released.
One benefit of the unscheduled delay was that the air ambulance had returned from its earlier response, giving the competitors added piece of mind before strapping into their machines. Unfortunately, the delay also allowed a thunderstorm to develop, which soaked the road and ignited a small brush fire, forcing yet another postponement for the top class.
Since the organizers had a limited timeframe in which they were granted exclusive use of the highway, they were forced by time constraints to send the 170-mph class down to Austin behind a pace truck. If they had waited any longer, the race couldn't be completed in time, but at least this decision would allow everyone a chance to run the 130 miles back to Battle Mountain. Given what had already transpired that day, the organizers decided to send the 170-mph class out first, since they had yet to run under green flag conditions.
The first car out was Lem Toliver's '54 Studebaker and was followed shortly after by Todd Carpenter in his '96 Camaro. As the racers closed in on Battle Mountain, Carpenter's Camaro reeled in Toliver's Studebaker. Lem entered the final turn near Battle Mountain at a speed somewhere over 180 mph, when the car came out from under him and went off the road.
Carpenter was able to avoid getting tangled up in the wreck and after bringing his Camaro to a halt, he immediately jumped out to render aid to his fellow competitor. Toliver was shaken, but emerged from the Studebaker with only a few minor bumps and bruises. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing the good news, but the crash and subsequent red flag ended the weekend for everyone else.
Everything that could have happened did. The competitors and organizers both knew nothing could have been done differently to result in a more positive outcome. Still, the event organizers felt like their competitors did not get their money's worth on that weekend and announced at dinner that night that all participants would be given half off the entry fee on their next MKM open road race. The news was met with much applause, but every competitor we've spoken with since has refused the generous offer and gladly paid their full fee for subsequent events. As strong as the crowd reaction was to the rebate offer, it didn't come close to the roar generated when Toliver made an appearance at the awards dinner later that night.
Indy 500 champion and Open Road Racing patriarch Rodger Ward used to frequently tell competitors this is the most dangerous form of racing. Safety is always the top priority at Open Road Racing events, but one look at what's left of Lem Toliver's Studebaker will confirm Ward's statement. This is not an event for the casual enthusiast and checkbooks routinely take huge hits, but in spite of the risks involved, the appeal remains strong. Everyone that came to Battle Mountain on this weekend left with a smile on their face and the stench of dead crickets in their car.
Pony Express 130 race director...
Pony Express 130 race director Ray Hampton addresses safety concerns at the host hotel prior to the race. A cricket infestation of biblical proportion had invaded the course and was cause for great concern.
It's not Richard Petty, it's...
It's not Richard Petty, it's Mike Nordin of Normandy Park, Washington. Without additional aerodynamic aides like a splitter, air dam or rear spoiler, Nordin kept the lift on his '72 Dodge Charger at bay by running in the 115-mph class.
The '94 Corvette of David...
The '94 Corvette of David Ster is undergoing a multi-point safety inspection prior to his 140-mph run. There's a lot of empty space in the 130 miles between start and finish--get in trouble and it might be hours before you see a hospital. Things like lugnut torque, tire pressure, wheel bearing clearance and fluid leaks are primary areas of concern.
Michael Szulborski and navigator...
Michael Szulborski and navigator Roland Roth survived just fine, but Szulborski's 2004 Viper GT experienced a near career-ending fire. This Viper, however, will live again to terrorize Mustangs on the streets of Danville, California.
The majestic Nevada canyons...
The majestic Nevada canyons were punctuated by the throaty echo of high-compression race engines. Here, Tracy Castro of San Ramon, California blasts through the mountain pass with his '69 Camaro en route to a 127-mph average speed on a 120-mph target.
The full implications of the...
The full implications of the cricket infestation were realized in a worst-case scenario when Lem Toliver lost control of his shovel-nose '54 Stude on a bug-splattered section of highway 305. Those black specs aren't dirt on McIlvaine's camera, they're crickets the size of your thumb.
Toliver's Studebaker was completely...
Toliver's Studebaker was completely totaled in the ensuing accident. Toliver was fine--thanks to excellent occupant protection from a full roll cage.
While Toliver was on his ill-fated...
While Toliver was on his ill-fated 170-mph run, Todd Carpenter was catching him as the pair approached the final turn of the course. Carpenter avoided the accident, stopped and offered assistance to a bruised Toliver.
Gary Schade of Aurora, Colorado...
Gary Schade of Aurora, Colorado prepares to launch his '97 Viper down the 130-mile stretch of Nevada 305.